Iain Borden – Stairway Architecture: Transformative Cycles in the Golden Lane

“The concrete interior staircase is a menace and a source of noise from my next-door neighbours.” Golden Lane Resident

“We don’t think enough about staircases. Nothing was more beautiful in old houses than the staircases. Nothing is uglier, more hostile, meaner, in today’s apartment buildings. We should learn to live more on staircases. But how?” George Perec

This is a short and unassuming essay that hasn’t made many waves in the history and theory world. Nevertheless I have found it to be unique in the way in treats the relationship between the physical facts of architecture and the experiential and subjective experiences of users. When researching for my PhD I had to cover a lot of ground in the worlds of ‘the everyday’, anthropology and phenomenology. I encountered many fascinating and useful texts on these subjects but more often than not they were overwhelmingly theoretical. When they did attempt to apply theory to architecture they relied on generalised examples and demonstrations. If the details of the space and form of architecture matter then surely it must be possible to examine this in concrete terms. Borden’s essay manages this while also working as demonstrative text of how one can study architecture. He begins by running through the various ways in which we can speak about architecture. He outlines how a historian would look at it, what a technical study might look like, and how a typological genealogy might be made, among other approaches. All of these seem to leave the experience of the architecture aside. They are not un-useful, Borden argues, but they miss something crucial. His analysis takes in the rituals and rhythms of using the stair as well as its symbolic status. But it isn’t done through generalities – we understand how the detailing, selection of materials, placement of the stair and construction all contribute to the various experiential interpretations (physical and visual). This is where hard objective knowledge meets intuitive and subjective experience. We are sometimes led to believe that such a link is not possible or too difficult. There is nothing spectacularly novel about what Borden says – we only just happen to be very un-used to thinking about architecture in this way. It is a synthetic analysis that doesn’t attempt to fix the meaning of the stair nor arrive at a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ verdict. Rather, we are shown the way in which the stair oscillates between visual and tactile meanings, between problematic outcomes (noise) and celebratory ones (enhancing rituals). Whereas some find the noise transmitted a nuisance (opening quote) others find the sounds something that links them to their neighbours. There is no final declaration about whether this bit of architecture succeeds or not. Instead we see how the stair (and by extension, any piece of architecture) carries with it complex relationships. We also see how it is insufficient to speak exclusively about either form or experience. The complexities and challenges of architecture and designing it emerge from the interaction of these two worlds.

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